First of two parts
LOS ANGELES—It’s an interesting coincidence that two Filipino-American film talents, Maricel Pagulayan and John Butiu, featured in my book, “My Filipino Connection: The Philippines in Hollywood,” both worked on “The Smurfs” movies. Maricel, a visual effects supervisor on the first “The Smurfs,” was promoted to associate producer in the sequel. John, on the other hand, is a visual development artist at Sony Pictures Animation.
“The Smurfs 2,” directed again by Raja Gosnell, stars Neil Patrick Harris, Hank Azaria, Jayma Mays and Brendan Gleeson and taps Katy Perry, Mario Lopez, Shaquille O’Neal, Paul Reubens, Alan Cumming, George Lopez, Anton Yelchin, Christina Ricci and more as voice talents.
Davao-born John specializes in the crucial “pre-vis” or previsualization of scenes before filming begins. His credits include “2012,” “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.”
What were your contributions to “The Smurfs” movies?
My contribution to the first one was as a visual development artist specializing in 3D at Sony Pictures Animation. I helped create the “look” of the Smurfs in 3D. We are used to seeing them in 2D, but once they are in 3D, it is a whole new world. It was very challenging to see how they would look from all angles and then get them approved by the art director, director, producer, owner, executives, etc.
I worked on making a 3D Smurf that matched the cartoony Smurf we are used to seeing and then made variations from “cartoony” to “realistic.” The “realistic” Smurf had to have features that were very anatomically correct—muscles, hair, fingernails, eyes and bones, etc. Sometimes the realistic Smurf looked “too” realistic, so we had to tone it down.
Then we made a wedge of 10 to 15 Smurfs that were in between versions from cartoony to realistic and the filmmakers chose which one they liked the best.
The characters I worked on were Clumsy, Papa Smurf and a generic Smurfy character which Sony Imageworks modified to use for the film that followed their requirements.
For “Smurfs 2,” I really didn’t do that much, since many of the 3D characters/assets were already built from the first movie. I’ve been working on tons of marketing images for “Smurfs 2” like taking production stills and enhancing them for print. I’ve been using Photoshop to create even more vibrant images and to make the characters stand out so the marketing department can use them for magazine covers, posters and other publicity/marketing needs.
What were your biggest challenges while working on these “Smurfs” movies?
The biggest challenge came at the beginning, when we tried to get the perfect look for the Smurfs. Using Maya 3D software, we built the variety of Smurfs for the executives, directors, producer and even the Smurfs owner, Lafig Belgium.
What were the fun aspects of working on these movies?
The most fun part was creating these awesome characters in 3D and making them come to life. In order for the first movie to get approved and green-lit, we had to make a 3D animated short with a 3D Smurf interacting with a live action set, 3D set elements and an actual dog.
By doing this with only five persons in our 3D group in Visual Development, we were able to make a short in three months, as opposed to hiring 50 plus 3D artists for nine months who go through all the steps in the pipeline process that are required to make the actual film.
In our group, we do it as fast as we can and use whatever method we need to quickly get the look that the filmmakers want. We are not restricted to using a pipeline process or certain types of software. We are mostly generalists in our group doing modeling, lighting, animation and compositing with art and design skills.
What are your next projects?
Officially, our next projects are “The Smurfs 3,” “Hotel Transylvania 2” and “Popeye.” In my next film, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2,” I played a larger part in the creative and design part of the visual development process.
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